The phrase "angry voters" is a redundant one in 2010, and we will likely see this on full display today in three states. Our sense is that after today there will be a large number of Congressional incumbents who will be wishing that they had chosen to retire in 2010.
Since every newspaper in America has told us that these races are "bellwether predictors," we'll examine several of them. But before we do so, here are some observations on the big picture political environment:
- As much as anything else, voters are anti-Washington. Yes, voters are "anti-incumbent," but that's because incumbents are associated with Washington. You will also see non-incumbent candidates lose, especially if they're more "connected" to Washington than their opponents. For evidence, look no further than the latest WSJ/NBC poll, which shows that only 25% of voters trust the government in Washington "to do what is right most or all of the time."
- Mid-term elections are low turnout events and angry voters tend to turn out. Polling is difficult in mid-terms because we are not necessarily sure who is going to vote. The composition of the turnout is the problem for incumbents (or those who are perceived to be Washington insiders) today. That is why Specter and Grayson will lose and Lincoln will be held under 50%.
- It would be a mistake to read too much into these races. Yes, they are a measure of voter anger with Washington and incumbents, but they will tell us little in terms of projecting how badly Democrats will lose in the fall. Each race has its own unique characters and characteristics that overlay the national mood.
Pennsylvania's Democratic Senate Primary - Sen. Arlen Specter v. Rep. Joe Sestak
Arlen Specter is going to lose today because this is the absolute worst environment for him to be running in. He was either going to lose now or in the fall, so it was only a matter of time. He is the embodiment of Washington, and to top it off he switched parties to keep his seat. His opponent, Representative Joe Sestak, fired off one of the best ads by any candidate this month: it showed Specter talking about the switch to "keep" his seat while picturing him with George W. Bush. Specter is simply the wrong candidate at the wrong time.
Now, Specter has been underestimated before and has been polling almost dead-even with Sestak, so he is far from out of it. However, the trend in polling has clearly not been moving in his favor--he's fallen steadily from a 62%-24% advantage a year ago to his current tie with Sestak (they're deadlocked at 44% each). For an incumbent to be mired in the low forties--and apparently moving backward in polls with just a few days remaining--is very dangerous territory.
At this point, we believe that all signs are pointing to a Sestak victory. Vice President Biden has been raising money and even cut a radio spot for Specter, but it appears that the Obama political operation has thrown Specter under the bus; there have been no Presidential appearances for the Senator in the last several weeks. Of course, after the President was unable to save Corzine, Deeds or Coakley, maybe that's a good thing for Specter.
Kentucky's Republican Senate Primary - Rand Paul v. Trey Grayson (formerly Sen. Jim Bunning's (R) seat)
Now this race is the polar opposite. Rand Paul is the perfect candidate for these times. And his opponent fell into the trap of exhibiting his connections to Washington at a time when doing so is a huge liability.
Sixteen months ago, this looked to be a ho-hum contest to replace the retiring Jim Bunning in a relatively straightforward Republican nomination and victory. Secretary of State Trey Grayson has done and said all the right things and has even gotten what should be the right endorsements, including that of Kentucky's senior senator and the current minority leader, Mitch McConnell. So why is he down about ten points to ophthalmologist and first-time candidate Rand Paul? It's because Paul has successfully positioned himself as an outsider and as someone who takes the concerns of the anti-Washington Tea Party seriously; his endorsements from the Tea Party's "renegade" heroes like Sarah Palin and Sen. Jim DeMint have helped, too.
This does represent a chance for Tea Partiers to demonstrate whether they are truly able to help get their own candidates across the finish line. (Sen. Bob Bennett's defeat in the Utah caucus was also a surprising upset by a Tea Party insurgency, but the caucus structure greatly favors underdogs with enthusiastic supports--as the Clinton campaign discovered in 2008.) Grayson has run a competent campaign, but Rand Paul has in one way acted like his father's son, expertly stoking the current anti-Washington, anti-incumbent sentiment. Like the Democratic contest in Pennsylvania, that's what this race is ultimately about. Of course, that's also the Tea Party movement's defining feature--even more so than low taxes or smaller government--so in this way it is very much a chance for the Tea Party to flex its muscles. We're comfortable predicting that he will be the first true "Tea Party" candidate for statewide office in a general election.
Arkansas's Democratic Senate Primary - Sen. Blanche Lincoln v. Lt. Gov. Bill Halter
In the end, poor Blanche Lincoln may end up wishing she had lost the primary outright, because the next several months are probably going to be very painful. She is an establishment candidate who is also in trouble within her own party, making her almost unelectable in the fall.
She is still leading Lt. Gov. Bill Halter in most polls, but as another incumbent stuck in the mid-40s, she's also vulnerable, and the increasingly aggressive tone of her campaign shows that she's clearly worried. Of course, there's also a very good chance we won't have a winner on Tuesday night: per Arkansas election law, she will need to break 50% of the total vote to avoid an early June run-off election.
While she may have been somewhat vulnerable before, Lincoln's turn in the spotlight during the health care reform battle was disastrous. She was criticized from both sides; on the left, for pledging to join a filibuster against the public option, and on the right (in a conservative Southern state) for negotiating with the Administration on the final bill. Ultimately, she did vote for the bill: a major issue in a state where 65% of voters would like to see it repealed.
While all of the candidates we've covered also face tough general election contests, Lincoln (or Halter) is in an even more difficult position than the rest. Currently, Rep. John Boozman leads a very crowded field in the Republican primary. But in a hypothetical general election matchup, he currently leads either Democrat by more than 25 points--no, that's not a typo.
We predict a narrow victory for Lincoln tomorrow (with a runoff to come) but, ultimately, we think this seat is almost certain to swing to the GOP in November.
Pennsylvania's 12th District - Special election to replace the Late Rep. John Murtha (D)
This election is important to both parties for deeply symbolic reasons beyond the chance for Republicans to pick up another House seat. Both parties are clearly aware of the significance: the DCCC has spent $800,000 on advertising, and political rock stars like Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, Newt Gingrich and Scott Brown are all campaigning in the district. And, as Politico reports, labor and interest groups are pouring money into the race as well.
The reason this race has garnered national attention is that it is the sort of tough-but-winnable race that Republicans will need to carry if they hope to even think about a majority in the next Congress. The Democratic candidate, Mark Critz, is a former aide to the late John Murtha. He's positioned himself as an heir to Murtha's legacy, which might seem an odd choice given the country's immense anti-incumbent sentiment. However, this is a district that was tailor-made for Murtha through gerrymandering, and the popular Murtha has been coasting through elections and bringing home federal dollars for decades. On the other hand, PA-12 does have a Cook PVI of R+1, indicating that it's a swing district in federal elections, and the demographic lean is strongly toward Republicans, with an electorate that is 94% white, 13% military veterans and has a median age of 41.8--all well above the national and statewide averages.
A deeper look at polling in the district points to other potential landmines for any candidate with a "D" next to his or her name in swing districts like this. As PPP observed back in April, only 28% of voters in the district express support for health care reform (59% are opposed). Even Democrats in the district support it by just a 43/39 margin. While Critz has spoken out against the passage of health care reform on the campaign trail, this issue is a key anger point for conservative voters and all Democrats are wedded to the bill, regardless of their stated positions. And another PPP poll over the weekend found that the President and his party are somewhat unpopular, with 55% of voters disapproving of Obama and 63% holding an unfavorable opinion of Nancy Pelosi
But there are some technical factors in this election that seriously help Critz. Because the election will be held on the same day as the Democratic primaries for Senate and Governor, there should be a boost to their turnout, given the interest in the contest between Sestak and Specter we described above. Also, the party primaries are actually being held on Tuesday as well, so voters will be asked to vote for Burns twice (Critz has fewer serious opponents in his primary).
At this point it looks like Critz will gain a very narrow victory today. The Senate race will drive up Democratic turnout.
However, if the interest in the Specter-Sestak battle for the soul of the Democratic Party is overstated and Democratic turnout sags, it's very possible that Burns could pull off an upset. If he does, the sky may in fact be falling for Democrats and anything will be possible for Republicans on Election Day. Either way, expect the media to seize upon the result as a key piece in the narrative leading to November.
Special thanks to John Zirinsky and Peter Ventimiglia for their thoughts and insights.